On Sunday evening , around 400 people gathered on Highway 1806, just north of the camp at Standing Rock, North Dakota, one of the centers of the ongoing actions taken against the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was set to be an ordinary demonstration, one they have done numerous times. Protectors were pushing the burnt-out trucks out-of-the-way that the police were using to block the highway, stopping the flow of supplies into camp. Those trucks they argued, stopped residents from accessing their jobs and their was no public safety reason for these trucks to be there.
As the citizens began to move the trucks out-of-the-way, the police showed up ready to fight. They came as they normally did: armed to the teeth with rubber bullets, mace, tear gas to break up these peaceful demonstrations. This time they brought a new weapon: a water cannon strapped to the top of a Humvee.
They began to spray down the protectors who had already been shivering in the 27 °F weather. The police reported they used a water hose to put out the multiple fires started by the demonstrators. However, as the protectors began posting images and video on social media, it was quickly revealed that the police were indeed using water cannons and sprayed the protestors for hours even after the fires were quickly extinguished.
As the sun rose and the few remaining protectors dissipated, there were 167 injuries including seven traumatic head injuries. Protectors like Sophia Wilanksy was severely injured while handing out water when she was hit by a concussion grenade that authorities fired in her direction. She posted photos on social media that show exposed bone and muscle.
By the end of the night, most major media outlets had covered the events on the bridge. “Standing Rock protest: hundreds clash with police over Dakota Access Pipeline,” wrote the Guardian. “Police, citing ‘ongoing riot,’ use water cannons on Dakota Access protesters in freezing weather,” wrote the Washington Post . Time’s story simply declared: “Clashes at Dakota Access Pipeline.”
Make no mistake, this is not a "protest" and it is certainly not a "clash." The actions that were photographed and caught on camera on Sunday show an act of brutal violence inflicted on one group by the police. The more appropriate headline should have read "Police Attack Peaceful Water Protectors" or "Police Use State-Sanctioned Violence to Protect Oil Company."
The media has been reluctant to cover this issue since it began in April, and when they do cover these high-profile events it is often without any regard to the police brutality used by law enforcement. Furthermore the media has refused to call those demonstrating "water protectors" as they have asked numerous times instead choosing words like "protester" and "rioter" to describe the peaceful demonstrators.
The media in their attempt to create a "balanced" look at the situation, offered an unfair and untrue defense of the police. By mischaracterizing the events of Sunday as a two-sided clash rather than an act of police brutality, the media has validated the actions taken by law enforcement. These are the same law enforcement officers who locked up water protectors - American citizens who have at this point not engaged in violence - in dog cages while proceeding to mace and tear-gas them.
These sides are not equal. The United Nations has already condemned the police attacks and labeled their actions as excessive force and that was a week before this incident happened.
Even more troubling is the way the media covers the narrative that has been communicated by the police - that the "protesters" are lighting fires on the highway and acting violently. They cover the police's narrative with equal weight even though the evidence on one side is overwhelming. Numerous videos show peaceful citizens getting sprayed for hours while the police remain in little danger of even coming in contact with any of the protectors.
Drone footage showing water cannons being used on water protectors
— Carlton Banksy (@rtyson82) November 21, 2016
This, of course, is not limited to #NODAPL. It happens often in media portrayals of people of color, specifically black Americans: After the Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police, media outlets chose to publish stories that highlighted the victim’s arrest record and mugshot, despite no evidence that Sterling posed a threat to police at the time he was shot down.
As of 2014, only 13% of journalists were from a minority group—any minority group. Short of a serious overhaul to include more journalists of diverse cultures, economic backgrounds and identities, media outlets need to at least take pains to make sure they’re representing and honoring those voices—and how they would tell their own stories.
Writing for Indian Country Today Network in September, Mark Trahant noted that the way language frames the #NODAPL movement is just as important as the movement itself: “This is a fight about story,” he writes. “And who gets to tell it.”
The media has declared that certain things do not deserve equal weight and representation on the news. For example, most media outlets have stopped giving a voice to Climate Change deniers. Once they stopped giving both sides a chance to voice their opinion on the existence of Climate Change - and started reporting solely on scientific fact - more Americans started taking Climate Change seriously. Giving a voice to those who do not have evidence to stand on is not a worth while goal. The same thing must be done with police brutality.
The police lied about the water cannons, they lied about the other side committing violent acts, they lied about Alton Sterling, and it is time to start looking at the evidence and reporting on the actual facts.